Sunday, December 31, 2017

Satoko Fujii’s “Orchestral” Reflection on Fukushima

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Ever since I first encountered Satoko Fujii at the Center for New Music in 2016, I have been drawn to the imaginative ambiguity of her approach to making music. Rather than trying to describe her has making jazz that is chamber music by other means or playing chamber music that is jazz by other means, I have settled on the fact that she can be both. (A Japanese colleague once explained to me that Japanese logic does not include Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle. Rather than accepting as axiomatic that there can only be “A” and “not A,” Japanese logic also allows for both “A and not A” and “neither A nor not A.”)

Only recently, however, did I learn that Fujii had experimented with going beyond the chamber music scale of resources. Twenty years ago she assembled a large ensemble, which she called Orchestra New York, for which she would serve primarily as composer and conductor. This group gathers (probably with some variation in personnel) in response to projects that Fujii undertakes that go beyond the constraints of a jazz combo. The most recent of these has been a personal contemplation of the 2011 nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima. This was a highly complex issue; and Fujii realized that, as a composer, she could only do it justice by working on a large scale.

The result was that Orchestra New York was to assemble for the tenth time to record the results of her efforts. Those results amount to an instrumental meditation in five only briefly interrupted sections lasting for about an hour and titled simply Fukushima. Like most of Fujii’s work, the recording was released on her own Libra label this past December 15; and, as was the case the last time I wrote about Fujii’s Libra recordings, seems to be blissfully ignorant of her efforts. As a result, I must once again encourage readers to visit Libra’s CD Store Web page to seek out this truly extraordinary effort in “subject-based” musical creativity.

As orchestra’s go, this ensemble is still close to a “chamber” scale. There are four saxophonists, Oscar Noriega on alto, Ellery Eskelin and Tony Malaby on tenor, and Andy Laster on baritone. The brass section combines trumpeters Dave Ballou, Herb Robertson, and Natsuki Tamura with trombonists Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler, and Curtis Hasselbring. Rhythm is then provided by Nels Cline on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on bass, and Ches Smith on drums.

However, much of the impact of this composition arises from sonorities that cannot really be associated with any of these instruments. The result is an other-worldly panorama, whose sounds are so alien that one can barely accept them as reality. Perhaps that is the way those in Tokyo, whose proximity to Fukushima was almost too frightening to contemplate, felt about their circumstances. Of course the ear finds its own way to acclimate itself to Fujii’s uncanny sonorities, but one must be willing to accept the gradual pace of acclimation. In some respects Fukushima follows that same intensely gradual approach to unfolding content that this site recently observed in a performance by sauti kelele, a performance for which, curiously, the only frame of reference would probably be the symphonies of Anton Bruckner.

This is probably a useful perspective. Bruckner used his rhetoric as a means of expressing the intensity of his personal capacity to bear witness to the Divine. However, if Bruckner turned his attention to his own idea of Heaven, Fujii has accepted the extent to which we are all fated to contemplate the harshest of realities on Earth. One might say that she has appropriated Bruckner’s rhetoric for the sake of looking in the opposite direction. The result is more than a little discomforting; but, for those of us who were never perilously close to the Fukushima site, Fukushima is music that nudges us toward more empathic thoughts of those who, to this day, are probably still painfully uncertain of what the future will bring.

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